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The Daily Register - Harrisburg, IL
  • Statehouse Insider: Did Madigan have the right approach all along?

  • For about a month now, House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN, D-Chicago, has spent some time every week having the House vote on various pension reform ideas.
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  • For about a month now, House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN, D-Chicago, has spent some time every week having the House vote on various pension reform ideas.
    The first week this was tried, the reform amendments were rejected by resounding margins. In fact, Madigan was the only person to vote for an amendment to raise the retirement age to 67 for everyone.
    All of the reform ideas floated that first week were pretty harsh, like hiking employee contributions by 5 percentage points of their salaries. And the overwhelming rejection of those amendments had people wondering if Madigan had miscalculated.
    Madigan had said he sensed the House wasn’t ready to vote on a comprehensive reform plan and that members needed further education on the issue, hence the weekly votes on individual reform proposals.
    But still, the votes weren’t close, even on some stuff deemed less harsh than the original round.
    Then we come to last week. The House approved, with a few votes to spare, a bill that severely limits annual raises to pension benefits.
    The vote wasn’t the final word on pensions. But make no mistake, this was significant. Of all of the pension reform ideas, this was considered by some reform proponents as perhaps the trickiest to pass.
    Changing the cost of living adjustments directly affects pensions for both active workers and retirees.
    Opponents can thus say it is unfair to retirees and that it is unconstitutional, both compelling arguments.
    But 66 House members voted for this controversial idea, a far cry from the vote to raise the retirement age a month ago.
    Madigan must have known what he was doing all along.
    * Pension reform might also have been helped along by just the basic legislative process. At least House Republican Leader TOM CROSS of Oswego thought that might be the case.
    In the last couple of weeks, various House budget committees have been holding hearings in earnest as they begin the process of crafting a new budget that the state will use next year. As part of that process, House members are getting input from agency officials and interest groups about the effects of state spending (or lack thereof) on different programs.
    The legislature has generally kept the clamps on state spending the last two years and is looking to do that again in the next budget. Gov. PAT QUINN and others have pounded home the idea that while state tax collections are expected to increase next year, all of that money and more will be needed for pension payments. So, Cross and others have suggested, the concept of pension costs squeezing out other state spending may finally be hitting home.
    It’s probably not the only reason for last week’s vote on a tough pension reform issue, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
    Page 2 of 2 - * After the vote on the COLAs, Madigan said the House is in position to “finalize preparation” of a pension reform bill. Although the House has passed some component pieces of pension reform, proponents still think all of the pieces will have to be part of one bill before the issue is resolved.
    A major question is whether Madigan will insist that a final bill include shifting downstate teacher pension costs to local school districts. He’s been adamant that the cost-shift has to be part of reforms.
    If it is, though, it could derail the whole package in the House among Republicans and downstate Democrats, even if they support other reforms. If it isn’t included, some Chicago Democrats may drop off, even if they support other pension changes.
    Good luck with that balancing act.
    * At least nothing will happen for the next two weeks. Both the House and Senate are taking their spring break.
    Doug Finke of the State Capitol Bureau can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or doug.finke@sj-r.com.

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